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  • Kivi Sotamaa

Theory Never Comes First

Kivi Sotamaa Interview 9.25.07

“Theory Never Comes First” – An Interview with Kivi Sotamaa in Philadelphia, September 25th, 2007

[the design process]

During the Aura sessions at Penn, you described a major goal of your work is to ‘escape the intellect to appeal directly to the body’.

KS Several of the smaller furniture-scaled pieces demonstrate a range of strong emotional and tactile experiences, scaled to a body. In general, I don’t think what I am after is non-intellectual, it is intellectual in a different, more emotional way. I am trying to avoid stories in order to foreground experience. Therefore, most of my work land somewhere between abstraction and representation.

How long has your digital work been a mainstay of your explorations?

KS Since the mid-nineties, digital work has become an increasingly important tool for the work, although no one working method dominates, especially in the early stages of the design process. Digital studies constitute one technique among many in seeking a means to a certain architectural end, of which I usually have a well-developed image in mind very early in the process. All project components are configured and orchestrated with an already-strong idea of what the final effect might be. Although I use generative processes, I am not in favour of ‘the art of the accident’ design process of letting computer scripting generate designs without much control. I always know what I am looking for.

Although the publications you find yourself in these days emphasise digital representation and form-finding, what other techniques do you favour?

KS Many projects, especially the smaller pieces which interact directly with the body, are explored with models which can quickly grow to full-size pieces. Cheap materials - fabric, cardboard, and wood each work at some levels; sometimes simply carving large blocks of foam over a long period of time gives the most satisfying answer. One could characterise this as being ‘promiscuous’ with design strategies, using techniques to suit the situation.

Process must vary with the client needs, the scale and one’s intentions for the project; it also varies in how it described; on occasion, two whole different presentations of the work are required – a builder-client will expect to hear a different description of ambitions and solutions than an architectural critic, a gallery owner or an academic interviewer.

As a result, the techniques used to achieve a certain goal will be chosen suited to the situation. For Sotamaa, more than others among the Aura presenters, the site is a strong determinant among many in the design. In most of the work, affect is most important, but fabrication (often with little time), movement (real or implied) and money are major considerations for both architect and clients. Many projects, especially the earlier ones, are installations. Traversing these spaces – often interior spaces - is often a staged or scripted activity. He often describes architecture is a ‘stage for life’; movement around, through or on that stage informs the design. He elaborates on this theme in a May 2003, seminar entitled Mood and Atmosphere in Architecture at TAIK:

“Movement, or the implication of movement, is a sensation that is hopefully evoked in all the projects. Sometimes the movement is real enough as one traverses the project, but in many installations it is perceived more as kinaesthesia – a sense of movement by visual systems which are not aligned but come together in an associative way to the observer. A form that doesn’t move, which provokes movement, that’s a sensation.”

Both the Spanish Dancer and Highriser projects illustrate the strong sense of flowing ‘fabrics’ and sensations such as dance or a model strutting a catwalk. There are always strong influences, whether or not they are acknowledged, from one’s surroundings. Sotamaa grew up and was educated surrounded by the buildings reflecting Finland’s unique, breakaway vision of Modernist design. Like his famous predecessors (such as Aalto and later Pallasmaa), Sotamaa does not feel tied to the sterner, dogmatic facets of Modernist form-making. Of inspirations, he describes the glass work of Tapio Wirkkala, from Of Balloon Dogs and Chantarelles, an article in Muoto 2003:

“Modernism, despite its stark minimalist aesthetic, couldn’t shake representation from Finnish design. Tapio Wirkkala in particular used figurative elements in an innovative way. His glass works Chantarelle and Leaf immediately communicate their message to the viewer. In examining Chantarelle, the mind isn’t bogged down by semantic analysis and is free to contemplate the glass itself; its shape, form, reflections on its surface, the diffusion of light. Thus, with a minor leap of logic, it could be claimed that representation makes it possible for a work to be considered emotionally, not just intellectually.”


Regardless of digital commitment in the design, one still relies much more on individual craftsmanship and a good working relationship with builders and many other contributors to achieve the project properly. The Vortex housing project, in Columbus Ohio, has been developed almost all the way through the construction documents; the requirements of the client, consultants, municipal officials and building code authorities are all constantly in play as the refinement of the design continues, well past the digital explorations. Although components might be cut or milled with great computer-driven accuracy, the assembly is never so precise on the site; one relies on the skills and design eye of welders, masons and assemblers of all kinds. Although Sotamaa relies on the craftsmen to execute the piece with the elegance required, often overcoming vagaries of the site, the expression of joinery or the fabrication of the components, however well-demonstrated their hierarchy might be within the overall project, is suppressed in favour of the dominance of the feeling of ‘flow ‘. (Chamberworks) This is most evident in the smaller furnishings, but not relegated to the small projects. An extreme example of this would be the Frozen Void ice project, whose finished ‘interior’ was created by the release of the unfrozen contents of a 4-metre-tall, 4-metre-diameter bag of water. The resulting grain and striations defy one to reconstruct its techniques of fabrication. Sotamaa describes the collaboration and its goal to blur the technique in favour of the affect in the Elegance Issue of AD (2007):

“The Frozen Void was an ice building – a cylindrical object of ice approximately 4 meters in height and diameter, and contained a naturally evolved void that people could enter. It was designed using a natural form finding process - freezing water: Ernesto Neto, our collaborator on the piece, thought the process of freezing water in a mold was like baking a sculpture. Just pour water in a “negative oven” and wait for the void to emerge. I thought the process was much like a computer algorithm, which is essentially a recipe, a finite set of well-defined instructions for accomplishing a task, such as a development of a form. Either way, our ice building was entirely generated by the mold and the automated form finding process.

Many naturally evolved environments and objects are a result of such a complex set of forces that one can only sense the presence of logic, but not fully comprehend it, “read” it. Imagine staring at a waterfall, a fire, a slot canyon or the snakeskin surface of the ocean at sunset. Today’s digital, algorithmic design processes enable designs whose sensations rival those of evolved objects and environments. Elegance, I would suggest, is achieved when a complex architectural object foregrounds its affective powers and delivers its effects effortlessly. The Elegant architectural object embodies process, without calling attention to it.”


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